Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Corporate Maternalism

The workplace arms-race to supply all of our psychological and spiritual needs.

Andrew Lynn

THR Illustration [Shutterstock photos].

Critics of industrial capitalism have often depicted it as an economic system that destroys the fabric of society. Mills and factories extracted workers from farm, neighborhood, parish, and guild and made them subject to the so-called tyranny of the machine. Friedrich Engels observed in the rise of large-scale industry a “veritable despotism independent of all social organization,” with workers as its beleaguered subjects. Engels’s friend Karl Marx indicted capitalism for having “pitilessly torn asunder” social ties and leaving workers exposed to an impersonal cash-nexus relationship with their employer.

But what some critics did not recognize was that industrialism also created new social bonds—especially in the workplace. Many influential planners of the nineteenth century wanted to counter Marx’s account: Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon took pride in how their confident theories of social engineering integrated family-like and morally laden social ties into work settings. Owen, a Welsh mill owner, was actually able to put his ideas into effect. Historian Philip Scranton described the early-nineteenth-century textile mills of the New England towns of Waltham and Lowell as “facilitating a cultural transition” that transferred the patrimonial relations of authority and familiarity to the boss or overseer. Mill owners saw it as their duty to adopt an in loco parentis role by means of reading groups, Bible classes, health care, and, for the mostly young women who lived and worked in the mills, round-the-clock supervision. Many industrialists translated their philanthropic efforts into similar worker-oriented programs, with Jane Addams’s Chicago settlement house being only one of the most prominent examples.

By the end of the nineteenth century, such practices had developed into more sophisticated forms of “corporate paternalism” such as the “company town.” Its most famous example was established around an Illinois sleeper-car factory named after its founder, George Pullman, and provided living quarters for more than 12,000 workers. Overseers closely monitored workers’ moral behavior and hygiene: Tobacco and alcohol consumption were prohibited and a curfew was enforced. A factory in Dayton, Ohio, introduced twice-daily calisthenics, lessons on hygiene, and, for female employees, supplementary cooking classes intended to improve dietary habits. According to an 1896 article in the American Journal of Sociology, department heads had discovered by the 1890s that providing workers a daily hot meal yielded “less delay from sickness, fewer absences, and an ability to work harder and more enthusiastically than when they ate cold food.” Employers counted not only on the appeal of moralistic paternalism but on the mutual benefit to employee and employer alike: Workers’ lives improved, and so did the bottom line. Twentieth-century industrial leaders such as Henry Ford appealed to the same logic in monitoring the home lives of his mostly immigrant workforce, often enforcing the social mores and hygienic practices of the white middle class.

It might not seem that such invasive paternalism would have a place in today’s professional and creative-class workplaces. After all, the foremen and bosses of yesteryear have been supplanted by what are euphemistically called team leaders. Instead of company towns, we have employee development programs. And while worker surveillance may still be common in the service industries, self-managed work appears to be the norm in white-collar settings, with the recent expansion of remote work only increasing employee autonomy. But the story is far more complicated, argues sociologist Carolyn Chen in her new book, Work Pray Code. Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with Silicon Valley workers and managers, Chen finds a variant of corporate paternalism on the rise, and, like its antecedents at Waltham and Lowell, it treats workers as underdeveloped adults requiring tutelage and guidance.

Chen tells the story of Susan Lamott (a pseudonym), who went from being an elementary school teacher and principal to a human resources expert. After Lamott left behind her career in education, she began noticing familiar problems among the engineers she oversaw: They were temperamental, would fall asleep at their desks, and regularly failed to eat either lunch or dinner. Lamott concluded that tech employees, while not financially impoverished children, were, in Chen’s words, “time-impoverished adults who couldn’t properly take care of themselves.” Lamott convinced her CEO to implement a program she had modeled after Head Start, which serves underprivileged preschoolers, and began providing three hot meals a day at work. The program worked; productivity and morale increased considerably. From this success, Lamott went on to introduce other initiatives that built on insights from the field of early childhood education.

What hath the kindergarten to do with the office? To use Chen’s phrase, “the personal has become the professional.” Employers began seeing the benefits of subsuming in workplaces the nonproductive aspects of their workers’ lives—whether relationships, self-esteem, dieting, spirituality, or hobbies—as a way of curbing self-sabotaging tendencies. Investment in these areas could prevent burnout or physical ailments that would reduce productivity. Chen notes the crucial role women have played in this transformation. She invokes the term “corporate maternalism” to reflect not only the maternalistic forms of care that companies now provide, but also the disproportionately high percentage of women who oversee such work (in an industry in which women continue to be a distinct minority). These workers are “company mothers” who speak of “nurture” and “care” while performing tasks like chopping up and serving vegetables every afternoon. Corporate maternalism has many features, from fliers on nutrition posted in workplace cafeterias to classes on “mindful eating and cooking” to retreats devoted to addressing underlying psychological and spiritual needs.

Corporate maternalism is not only a human resources strategy. It is also a recruitment gambit. Many workplaces now find themselves in a caring-and-sharing arms race to outdo their competitors in wooing new employees. Workers report that they get more pleasure from dining with their coworkers than through social ties with those outside their workplace. This insularity is reinforced by regular socializing with colleagues after work and on weekends and even coordinating vacations together. Chen interviewed one programmer who, on moving to Silicon Valley, found a deeper sense of confidence and self-worth through close relationships with coworkers and his manager. Quickly abandoning his nine-to-five schedule to work around the clock, he declared himself “loyal to the community” of work over anything else.

Chen views this novel configuration of control, community, and spiritual development through a number of lenses, but the favored one is religion. Work is both replacing religion and becoming religion, she contends. San Francisco’s relatively low rates of religious affiliation provide support for both theses. The fact that many workers report falling away from their prior involvement in religious congregations only supports Chen’s case. Employers configure work experiences that provide the intimate ties, meaning, and shared purpose that people might otherwise derive from formal religious affiliation. Many of Chen’s interviewees described participating in or leading workshops on meditation, mindfulness, and journaling. Google famously promotes a six-week “Search Inside Yourself” course that is informally referred to as “going to church.” The course brings in some of the top Buddhist luminaries. Another workplace facilitates small-group discussions that one of the participants describes as “prayer time.” It is a spirituality that pays for itself.

But the category of religion can be a slippery analytical tool in the hands of social scientists. Are Silicon Valley workers genuinely religious? Few of Chen’s interviewees—setting aside those involved in formal religious communities—would likely identify themselves among the faithful. Nor would their employers dream of joining Hobby Lobby or other private companies that defend the incorporation of religion into the workplace. There is religion, and then there’s religion. Chen’s findings suggest that modern work can easily penetrate the secular-religious (or perhaps more pejoratively, the rational-irrational) barrier of modern life, inviting more critical interrogation of Silicon Valley’s unlikely coadherents. But Chen’s findings also offer an opportunity to draw out features of Silicon Valley’s intense devotional practices that are shared by very few religious adherents in the Western world. Setting aside metaphors of either religion or cult, we might more accurately describe the world of work in Silicon Valley as a form of insular communalism, a totalizing institution, a greedy institution, or—perhaps most helpful here—an “institutionally complete” community.

In 1964, the Canadian sociologist Robert Breton introduced the term “institutional completeness” to assess the relative assimilation of various ethnic subcultures and the degree to which they provided comprehensive services and network ties to their respective members. He discovered that ethnic groups with high institutional completeness relied on their own institutions—schools, churches, publications, welfare organizations, work associations—to divert members from the institutions of wider society. The result was very low participation in the wider culture. It takes little imagination to recognize the remarkable institutional completeness of Silicon Valley firms: Daycare, gyms, dry-cleaning services, pet care, meditation circles, yoga, dining, drinking, and even vacationing have all become subsumed into the workplace.

These dynamics reveal how the lives of tech employees bear close resemblance to only a very small segment of the American religious landscape. Silicon Valley companies are vastly more institutionally complete than nearly all modern religious communities, with their closest points of comparison being religious communes, ethnoreligious congregations, and sectarian groups seeking to remain untouched by the wider culture. These are not Methodists in the Midwest or spiritualists in New England: they are the statistically unusual groups that share three meals a day and coordinate travel across households. Few religious Americans know anything of such a world. Indeed, the institutional completeness of Silicon Valley might be more suitably compared to that of groups united for nonreligious reasons, including groups of migrant workers or deployed members of the military.

This opens the door to a more political reading of the social phenomena explored in Work Pray Code. Chen’s analysis helps us to reimagine how modern liberal societies prove compatible with both densely connected social settings and settings lacking even the loosest of social ties. Silicon Valley’s institutional completeness provides a social setting enabling highly resourced elites to defect from pluralistic or inclusive public life. While employers may take strong public stances in national politics, their workplace cultures steer workers toward lifestyles that preclude basic bonds with neighbors or civic participation. The employees retreat into a tight-knit enclave. This proves both integrative and disintegrative.

Human resources departments are well aware of this: Part of Lamott’s justification for starting an employee community service day was that workers simply didn’t “have the free time” to volunteer on their own in the community, a limitation likely stemming not from inadequate paid time off but from the power of informal pressures not to use it (or the fact that workdays already stretched past dinnertime). Ironically, Silicon Valley workers excluded from corporate maternalism—cleaning staff, contract workers, dog walkers, and childcare workers—might have a better chance to participate in local forms of politics and communal life.

But Silicon Valley’s institutional completeness also confronts us with the surprising reality that seemingly aliberal (or even illiberal) forms of community still thrive in a culture of liberal individualism. It is a stubborn fact that proves inconvenient to a growing chorus of “postliberal” critics on the right who charge that modern liberalism erodes all authority and weakens any form of community that puts constraints on individual freedom. Political theorists Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, for example, trace this individualism back to John Locke, who imagined the individual was “prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals.” Relying on a highly idealist account of history, postliberal writers fret of Lockean individualism clearing away all forms of authority and communal ties outside the modern administrative state. The result is a social order of atomized individuals that, in Deneen’s words, are “liberated from constitutive communities” and plunged into a “constructed sphere of autonomous liberty” free of “informal and habituated expectations and norms.”

Silicon Valley work culture reveals where postliberal critiques go wrong: Liberal ideas, even when taken up by political and legal institutions have not banished all forms of cultural authority. Liberalism has a long history of leaving hierarchical power relations and institutionally complete communities intact, with corporate maternalism being only one of many such cases operating within the contemporary social landscape. Postliberals might more productively focus on economic transformations like globalization or the rise of the tech industry that have a proven record of reconfiguring constitutive communities. Economic institutions, after all, have the power and a vested interest in radically altering which authorities and identities hold legitimate authority over those of us who work for a living.

As historian Christopher Dawson observed, in the world of industrial capitalism, sociological analysis is often a better tool than political theory for understanding how powerful organizations shape the conditions of modern societies. Work Pray Code offers a rare sociological interrogation of the socio-political forces that direct citizens toward the ends of workplaces while diverting their attention from the ends of a shared public life or democratic practice. The result is one of the things that worried Alexis de Tocqueville in his investigation of early-nineteenth-century American democracy: the withdrawal of individuals from larger civic engagement into a “small circle of family and friends”—or in this case, a small circle of coworkers temporarily cast into such roles. Reckoning with the effects of such a withdrawal will require ongoing investigation of the ways organizational, social, and political lives intersect both to serve and weaken the common good.